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The Filmstruck Cram — Day 8: ‘Sisters’

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Unlike other films from The Filmstruck Cram series, such as Shogun Assassin or The Long Good Friday, Brian De Palma’s Sisters is not (at the moment) hard to find. Just last month, The Criterion Collection released a director-approved 4K restoration on Blu-Ray, complete with Bernard Herrmann’s paranoid, roiling score presented in uncompressed, monaural form. Far from an endangered relic or cinematic curio, Sisters represents a different category of Filmstruck offering: the long-awaited refreshed classic, rescued from muddy VHS transfers and now streamable for a fraction of the cost of a Blu-Ray. For filmgoers who are completionists about director filmographies, the value of efforts such as that on Sisters cannot be overstated.

De Palma’s first offering in the vein of the macabre, high-art sensationalism that would become his signature, Sisters is a foundational text for the director’s style. Many of his hallmarks are on display here; canted camera angles, overwhelming homage, splashy blood, unsettling atmosphere, split-screen action, and voyeurism all jostle against one another. Yet, viewing Sisters solely through the prism of its influence on De Palma’s later work would be a mistake, as the film is hardly a rudimentary or immature effort. In telling the story of a former conjoined twin with a murderous split personality, De Palma ably evokes his influences while also presenting his own close-to-fully-formed style.

Margot Kidder stars as Danielle, a woman who was only recently surgically separated from her sister, Dominque. After a date and a night of lovemaking with Phillip, an unsuspecting adman, Philip steps out in the morning to refill a prescription for Danielle — who has become noticeably agitated. Upon his return, Philip is brutally murdered by Dominique. Or was it Dominique? De Palma spins mystery out of the killer’s true identity, and suspense overtakes the film once Danielle’s neighbor, Grace, witnesses the murder and begins to investigate what she saw.

So much of Sisters focuses on a who-saw-what mystery — unsurprising, given De Palma’s relentless cinematic quotation of Hitchcock, who made voyeurism a kind of ethos. Grace (Jennifer Salt), a tireless local reporter, sees Philip’s murder because she was looking through Danielle’s window from across the courtyard. She continues to spy on Danielle, even hiring a private investigator to help. At the risk of making a rote observation, De Palma’s style — the probing nature of his camera movement, and the use of split-screen perspective — ensures that we, the audience, are spying along with Grace. The director withholds crucial information from the film’s voyeurs and its audience, highlighting the fragmented nature of images stolen from afar. In the film’s closing shot, with the private detective completely isolated and observing Philip’s corpse from afar, De Palma seems to be underlining the futility of watching at all; the case has been closed, but the detective still watches, waiting for something to happen. Who know’s how long he’ll be there, waiting and watching, with nothing to show for it.

There are plenty of other readings of Sisters, which helps explain the appeal of De Palma’s peak output. Even though the film swerves all the way into the sensationalism that was merely a facet of Hitchcock’s most lurid offerings, the director buries plenty of ideas to unpack beneath a façade of titillation and nonstop suspense. Like Rosemary’s Baby (from Polanski, De Palma’s other oft-cited influence), Sisters comments on women’s liberation and sexual enlightenment, framing Danielle’s urge toward domesticity as the impetus for the event that fractures her psyche and makes her monstrous. On her date with Phillip, Danielle assures him that she isn’t a Women’s Liberation type; later, we learn that her desire to have a husband and family first lead to her separation from Dominique, as well as the cataclysmic fallout thereafter. Her split personality and murderous actions serve as a morbid reminder of the cost of her desire for a traditionally feminine role.

Sisters is richly layered with ideas to unpack, including remarks on institutional racism and misogyny in the police force, while offering in Grace and Danielle women who are professionally or psychosexually oppressed. De Palma should be taken seriously here, although it should be noted that the director’s understanding of psychology and disability is mostly retrograde. Still, as a stylist, De Palma provides an option for those who might wish to take in Sisters on a purely sensory level. The violence is nightmarish and over-the-top, and the bright fake blood within the camera’s blunt framing allows us to be giddily shocked but not overly disturbed. Bernard Herrmann also unleashes an aggressive score, trading subtle suspense for fully ratcheted, euphoric peaks. Sisters is worth watching more than once to allow the subtext to bleed through — after you’ve absorbed Brian De Palma’s gleefully exploitative twists and turns. Grab the Criterion Blu-Ray — or better yet, catch it on Filmstruck while you still can.

For more Filmstruck Cram, click here.

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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